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Coronavirus Immigration

ICE outlines its response to COVID-19 outbreak at El Paso detention center


Immigration and Customs Enforcement has set up protocols that include separating detainees in the El Paso Processing Center and other detention facilities where there are cases of COVID-19.

ICE outlined its procedures in a statement in response to questions about COVID-19 cases inside the El Paso facility amid growing concerns about an outbreak.

ICE places detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as COVID-19,” according to the statement. 

The agency also said it also takes precautions to separate others who may have been exposed to the virus while in custody. “Detainees who meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19 are housed separately from the general population.” 

ICE lists five cases of COVID-19 El Paso processing center as of Friday.  Women inside the facility reached out to voice their concerns after learning they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive.

The two women held at the El Paso Processing Center said they mingled and had meals with that individual on a daily basis. They also said they are among 17 detainees in “quarantine” in a tent in conditions one woman described as “frightening.”  

The women do not want their names used they said because they fear retaliation and losing phone privileges for speaking out. They were especially concerned to see the woman who tested positive  for the virus is back in the facility and among a dozen women in an isolation room wearing face masks.

ICE transports individuals with “moderate to severe symptoms, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring”  to hospitals, according to the ICE statement. “Detainees who do not have fever or symptoms, but meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk, are housed separately in a single cell, or as a group, depending on available space,” according to ICE. 

But as the number of COVID-19 cases among people in ICE custody grows, so do advocates’ calls to release non-violent detainees. A  lawsuit filed Friday seeks the emergency release of six medically vulnerable immigrant women in custody. 

“ICE has essentially forced us into having to take this fight to court,” said ,”said Rebecca Sheff, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in El Paso. She’s on a team of lawyers seeking release of the six immigrant women considered at high risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19 because of their age or underlying medical conditions.  

U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo set a hearing on a requested preliminary injunction for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. 

“No matter what shuffling of women inside the facility might be going on, our clients cannot practice social distancing. There’s no way in current conditions in which they’re held that they can remain six feet from other individuals,” Sheff said.

According to the lawsuit filed in district court Friday,  those conditions include sleeping in dormitories and sharing bathrooms, showers and telephones.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been taking important steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs …” according to an ICE official. 

ICE has evaluated its detained population based on CDC guidelines  for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness because of COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention was appropriate according to the statement from the agency. 

ICE has released 700 individuals who meet that criteria and allowed them the option of alternatives to detention until their immigration cases are decided.

But others who are at higher risk for severe illness or death if exposed to the virus remain in custody, according to lawyers who filed the lawsuit seeking the emergency release of the six immigrant women.

“ICE has confirmed only about five cases at the El Paso Processing Center but from what our clients are reporting and what we know about the conditions inside the facility, the outbreak is poised to mushroom into a really serious event,” Sheff said.

Cover photo: ICE’s El Paso Processing Center has a small medical clinic for treatment of people with COVID-19 or other illnesses. (Photo courtesy of Robert Holguin)

Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters.

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